Research Methods as Diagrammatic Thinking
‘diagrammatic thinking and writing’; connecting the dots in Arts research for MA Design students.
Students of the MA 3D Design course have just submitted their assignment for the Research Methods module. This has involved producing a piece of work, publishedon the Issuu platform, which integrates writing, thinking and visuals to clearly communicate their research projects and methods. It was a challenge. It can feel daunting to try and organise several stands of research into a linear way for some reader to decide whether your work makes sense or is effective. Common concerns of ‘will they like it’; ‘does it make sense’; ‘my work looks very different from everyone else’s’; or ‘my research point doesn’t seem very significant’ plagues students.
MA students are required to begin developing their own or adapting methods of practice to work with what is most relevant to their research projects. It is not a matter of choosing a method necessarily, nor is as easy as mimicking another artist or designer, nor is it necessarily as reductive as saying “it is ethnographic study” or “it requires a questionnaire”. Students have to engage with what they actually test and do, they have to compare, evaluate, work out how it’s similar and different. Data collecting almost always starts as soon as they step out to practice. Before they even understand how they are collecting data, they have to engage in working out their methods and writing them in a clear manner. There are a huge array of writing tips and study skills available to students, but these often focus on the traditional essay, dissertation, report or thesis format. For practice students, think again, it’s almost like they have to be able to think visually, move beyond linear traditional forms and are asked to be original. That is demanding no matter how exciting it sounds. When talking to students about this process, rather than simply saying ‘why don’t you’…in my experience it is far better to say ‘what if…’
What if I wrote in a different way, what if I presented my ideas in a non-linear style, in a visual/text format that better represents my research approach? These are just some of the inquiries we explore. As part of my interest in critical & contextual studies education within Leeds School of Arts, I try to support students find ways to communicate their work outside of direct pen to paper or cursor to blank screen towards techniques of physical placements of text, cut-ups, and diagrammatic writing. In Diagrammatic Writing (2013), Joanna Drucker emphasises making connections through the structure of your writing or report. Her work is full of offside notes in the gutter of the book, footnotes and boxed in additions. Some text is staggered, some demands reorientation. Elsewhere, we find examples from Cal Arts and The Blueprint for Counter Education (1970), or Black Mountain College where different approaches to Contextual Studies were encouraged. Blueprint for Counter Education particularly emphasises the role of charts, diagrams for collecting knowledge, organising ideas and disseminating knowledge.
Experiments in Contextual Studies during the 1960s and 70s meant role play, thought experiments, practical inquiry to difficult concepts - ways to think through practice. It is something I hold onto as I teach students online through playful attempts of paper and writing experiments of re-organisation with collage and cut-ups to folding, and shared diagram making on whiteboards. It is a way to mine and excavate theory and interrogate how we can better represent research and ideas.
Various approaches have developed over the years which employ the use of diagrams in arts research, once experimental and now widely used, such as field notes and other visual research approaches. All of these methods have ultimately relied on thematic strands. Graeme Sullivan, when talking about visual research methods (see ‘Art-based Research in Art Education’ Studies in Art Education (2006) and Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in the Visual Arts (2016)) suggests that students involved in some sort of art and design inquiry require a thematic approach that allows them to assemble their ideas. This implies utilising some sort of conceptual scaffold to develop their work. We often call it a framework but the scaffolding that both produces and holds up a building is a useful visualisation. It has ‘point to point’ lines as connectors (See Ingold, Lines, 2007), it has joins. The scaffold turns, and has planks to navigate into different levels, ladders that skip a place to take you to the roof. But, the scaffold looks airy, porous and a little exposed in harsh weather but it still produces a building, something whole, complete. When the wrapping and supports are taken away the work is there. My point, the diagram, like a scaffold can be incredibly supportive to building the work not as a finished neat product but as a process of visualising, thinking and writing information, connecting thoughts, strands of practice and theoretical concepts.
As Critical & Contextual Studies Tutor for LSA this is just one way I approach diagrammatic thinking and writing, see my summaries of Diagrammatic Writing.
Students are encouraged to engage in an unfolding process of diagrammatising their work. In the first year of undergraduate art courses we start with simpler forms of visual essays, by year 2 they may be producing charts and diagrams alongside their discussions or we may just use the Microsoft Teams OneNote and whiteboards for fleshing out a text as a diagram. When I taught elsewhere we made diagrams on the walls of the studio, made physical blueprints of concepts. Here at Leeds Beckett we have used workshops in physical rooms and now online to engage with this process of learning, thinking through diagrams. The result? We have students producing diagrams, diagrammatic pieces of writing and each one has used those to help them organise and develop their written work. It shifts things from our loved post-it notes to an experimental and creative mode of building their own scaffolds – assembling their research methods. The images presented below are a small glimpse into what MA students have worked with this year that capture how we’ve been trying to work through our research journeys diagrammatically.
An Interdisciplinary artist working in critical spatial practices developing 'blubilds' performance and installation drawings, Joanna works as Senior Lecturer and co-ordinator for Critical and Contextual Studies for the Design courses at Leeds Beckett.